Did you happen to catch Mad Men’s Season Five, Episode 11, “The Other Woman?” I have recently started watching Mad Men, and like most people, find it brilliant and depressing. This episode was perhaps the biggest example of that mood. Brilliant because of a trick of timing, depressing because of the plot. If you’re still catching up with your DV-R, then WARNING, SPOILERS AHEAD. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Briefly, a sleazy Head-of-Dealerships tells the ad men that if he is allowed to sleep with Joan, SCDP is basically guaranteed the Jaguar account. Finally, a car account—it will be the biggest thing since Lucky Strike. Equally sleazy Account guy Pete tells Joan about the idea, then tells the other partners (falsely) that she’s considering it. Lane, the Head of Accounts, tells her it’s a terrible idea, but if she wants to go for it, it should be for nothing less than a silent partnership, a real piece of the company. This idea makes its way back to the partners, and they agree to play ball—all but Don, who is disgusted with them.
Fast-forward to Don, the only partner who dismissed the idea completely. He shows up at Joan’s apartment and tells her not to go through with it. It’s beneath her, and they can win it on their own. Don is not known for being chivalrous, but we love him for this. Joan looks touched as she gets ready to step into the shower.
Next morning, we see the pitch, and it’s brilliant ad work (compliments of Ginsburg, the new guy). The old Don is back, and he tells everyone that Jaguar is “something beautiful you can finally own.” Devastatingly, we see in flashbacks that Joan has gone through with sleeping with the dealership guy anyway. It’s hard to watch, especially when Don shows up at her apartment and we realize that the scene where he tells Joan not to go through with it is actually too late—she already has. Her touched look is actually a crushed look. Maybe, had she known that not all of the partners were on board, she wouldn’t have had to take that shower to wash off the Jaguar scum.
Playing, then replaying the scene when Don visits Joan in her apartment was a brilliant stroke of directing that underscored how effective time skips can be. It shows how not telling a story from start to finish must be done delicately in order to be effective, not confusing. I think it’s easier to do on screen than in a book. Other great examples of this? The backward start-and-stop method absolutely made the film Memento. Without the unconventional order, we could not have felt so keenly the protagonist’s plight of forgetting everything that’s ever happened to him.
Today’s Writing Exercise
As a writer, if you are not going to start at the beginning, or if you are otherwise going to play with chronological order in a story, you must have a darn good reason for doing it, and you have to keep it all straight—in your own head and everyone else’s. So here’s the challenge: Take one of your works-in-progress, and make an outline of a new order to use for telling the story. What does that do to your story? Why did you choose that particular order? How could you use a new order of storytelling as a plot device? Try using it to simplify the story, or to make it more sophisticated. What do the new beginning and end tell you about your story that you didn’t know before? Why did you choose the new starting and stopping points (other than for the sake of a writing exercise)?